Show­ing his sen­si­tive side

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

WHAT’S with Peter Carey? Af­ter four days swel­ter­ing un­der an un­for­giv­ing sun at Ade­laide Writ­ers Week ear­lier this month, this is the ques­tion that oc­cu­pied my re­turn jour­ney to Syd­ney. The co­nun­drum is why, at 64 and hav­ing achieved an un­rea­son­able de­gree of suc­cess, Carey can’t re­lax and en­joy him­self on his home turf. With 10 nov­els, two Booker prizes ( No­bel lau­re­ate J. M. Coet­zee is the only other writer to have won twice), a new con­tent­ment founded in his re­la­tion­ship with pub­lisher Frances Coady, the so­phis­ti­cated com­pany of New York’s lit­er­ary set, the sat­is­fac­tion of his role as a teacher of creative writ­ing and prox­im­ity to the sons he loves, it seems fair to ex­pect the writer to feel com­fort­able in his own skin.

You may even go a step fur­ther and ar­gue he is in a po­si­tion to take a gra­cious, even gen­er­ous at­ti­tude to the coun­try of his birth and the peo­ple who con­tinue to feed his large imag­i­na­tion. In­stead, it’s hard to avoid the sense that, far from age­ing grace­fully, Carey is em­bit­tered by the be­lief that Aus­tralians refuse to recog­nise his ge­nius, that it’s not enough for the writer to be re­spected as a lit­er­ary ti­tan; he must be loved as well.

Carey elec­tri­fied a ca­pac­ity fes­ti­val crowd that had packed into Ade­laide’s town hall for what was ar­guably the key writ­ers week event when he re­torted loudly and an­grily ‘‘ None of your busi­ness!’’ to a ques­tion from the floor on why he con­tin­ued to live in New York, his home for nearly 20 years.

Ear­lier the same day, his friend and fel­low Booker prize- win­ning nov­el­ist Ian McEwan had launched Carey’s new novel, His Il­le­gal Self , in front of an­other over­flow­ing fes­ti­val crowd, declar­ing apropos of noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar, ‘‘ Peter can live any­where he damned chooses!’’

Now I’m pretty con­fi­dent 99 per cent of Carey’s Aus­tralian read­ers couldn’t care less about his ad­dress. Af­ter all, more than one mil­lion Aus­tralians are liv­ing and work­ing over­seas, a great many of them in the US. It’s not clear why Carey is so thin- skinned.

Even be­fore ar­riv­ing in Ade­laide I re­ceived a phone call from his pub­lish­ers warn­ing me to ex­pect an ear­ful from Carey dur­ing a sched­uled in­ter­view. Why, I won­dered, when Re­view had given him cover treat­ment with an in­ter­view to mark the novel’s re­lease that left alone the awk­ward is­sues of his ac­ri­mo­nious di­vorce, the ac­cu­sa­tion by his ex- wife Alison Sum­mers that Carey was guilty of ‘‘ emo­tional ter­ror­ism’’, re­ported in The Guardian , and Mrs Jekyll, Sum­mers’s un­pub­lished fiction about de­cep­tion?

As it un­folded, Carey’s ir­ri­ta­tion con­cerned a col­umn item in Re­view ’ s books pages draw­ing at­ten­tion to a scathing no­tice for His Il­le­gal Self in The New York Times. In the event Carey was charm­ing in the in­ter­view, but his re­marks were re­veal­ing. He was guilty, he said, of a ‘‘ horse­shit’’ Aus­tralian habit. ‘‘ It’s what we do,’’ he said, lung­ing into a broad Aus­tralian ac­cent: ‘‘ It’s OK, mate, I’m just like you, I’m not do­ing any­thing re­ally spe­cial. I’m like a brick­layer, putting down a chap­ter a day . . .’’

He at­trib­uted the muted crit­i­cal re­sponse in Aus­tralia to his latest fiction to lazi­ness on the part of lo­cal re­view­ers. Re­fer­ring back to the main re­views for his 2001 novel True His­tory of the Kelly Gang , he claimed that none had ac­tu­ally re­viewed the book. ‘‘ None of them re­ally un­der­stood there was some lan­guage that had been cre­ated that had never ex­isted in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture be­fore. Not one. Ev­ery­one re­viewed the Kelly gang, the his­tory of the Kelly gang, what they knew about the Kelly gang. They didn’t know very much about it, so they didn’t even know what I’d done with it.’’

As if re­cruited to Carey’s defence, McEwan, in his re­marks launch­ing His Il­le­gal Self , praised its lan­guage, in par­tic­u­lar the voice Carey had found for his eight- year- old Amer­i­can char­ac­ter Che, a child lost in place and time.

McEwan read from an ef­fu­sive re­view in The New Yorker in which critic James Wood de­scribes ‘‘ Carey’s of­ten beau­ti­ful novel’’ as ‘‘ one of his best re­cent works’’. His Il­le­gal Self , writes Wood, shares ‘‘ the bruis­ing tang of all his fiction, in which crooked col­lo­qui­al­ism and po­etic for­mal­ity com­bine’’. The re­sult bril­liantly vi­tal: the world bulges out of sen­tences’’. Now that’s more like it.

As he has aged, Carey told John Free­man in the in­ter­view pub­lished in Re­view on Aus­tralia Day, he has be­come less in­ter­ested in satire and more in­ter­ested in lan­guage: ‘‘( In) The Kelly Gang I as­pired to make a po­etry out of an un­let­tered voice, and ever since I’ve been ob­sessed with bend­ing, snap­ping and re­shap­ing sen­tences.’’ So it’s not hard to see that a re­view of His Il­le­gal Self in this month’s Aus­tralian Book Re­view , in which ed­i­tor Peter Rose ex­presses sur­prise at ‘‘ the flat­ness of Carey’s prose’’, may have pierced his ego.

‘‘ It is hard to be­come ex­cited about Peter Carey’s new novel, and that is a hard no­tion to en­ter­tain,’’ Rose writes.

Re­view­ing His Il­le­gal Self for The Week­end Aus­tralian in Jan­uary, Liam Dav­i­son ac­claimed Carey’s ‘‘ mas­ter­ful de- fa­mil­iari­sa­tion of the Aus­tralian ex­pe­ri­ence’’. He lamented that Carey had not writ­ten a dif­fer­ent novel, how­ever, one that ex­ploited ‘‘ more fully the nar­ra­tive po­ten­tial of the hot­bed of US rad­i­cal­ism’’. Re­fer­ring to the mother fig­ure who flees the US with Che, only to end up at a fly­blown Queens­land com­mune, Dav­i­son con­cluded: ‘‘ One shares Dial’s ex­as­per­a­tion at the sheer ab­sur­dity of the place she has found her­self in when im­por­tant things are hap­pen­ing ‘‘ is the else­where.’’ The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald ’ s Andrew Riemer found the novel ‘‘ a quirky, at times bril­liant, some­times heart­less his­tor­i­cal fan­ta­sia’’ that re­lies on Carey’s ‘‘ nar­ra­tive wiz­ardry’’ rather than tug­ging at heart­strings.

By re­mov­ing the ac­tion of His Il­le­gal Self from the US to Queens­land early in the novel and stay­ing put, Carey was firmly in ‘‘ Miles Franklin ter­ri­tory’’, Riemer sniped, a ref­er­ence to Aus­tralia’s big­gest lit­er­ary prize, a bauble Carey has won three times.

My read­ing is that de­spite His Il­le­gal Self ’ s of­ten sub­lime lan­guage ( on the mag­pie’s cry: ‘‘ Who was it said like an an­gel gar­gling in a crys­tal vase?’’) and Carey’s beau­ti­ful evo­ca­tion of the frac­tured bond be­tween Che and Dial, struc­tural flaws in the nar­ra­tive leave too many ques­tions unan­swered.

Theo Tait makes the same ob­ser­va­tion re­view­ing the novel in a re­cent Lon­don Re­view of Books . Just at the point at which Dial spir­its Che away to Queens­land, Tait writes, ‘‘ the reader starts to ask ques­tions to which there are no good an­swers’’.

Ac­cord­ing to Carey, there has not been ‘‘ much fab­u­lous read­ing of the book’’ by Aus­tralian crit­ics. It’s con­ceiv­able that the novel is just not that fab­u­lous.

re­view@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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